A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  “gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    “all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences”

    The hell they would. Lots of students are already struggling in some or all of the courses they are in. Making the courses even more rigorous will just make school more unpleasant for those students. They will fall further and further behind.

    Yes, other students aren’t challenged enough and would benefit from increased rigor. Surprise! Young people are different. They are diverse! What helps some hurts others, and vice versa.

    There may be some place where increased rigor helps everyone. But it is not the planet we are living on.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      It depends on your definition of “enriching and rigorous educational experiences”.

      For some kids building a bicycle from a kit, becoming a pilot, or planning, tending and growing a garden would qualify as an enriching educational experience. Others may find these activities boring and pointless.

  2. palisadesk says:

    Criteria for classification as “gifted” varies widely, not only by state but also by district. Currently mine requires an elementary student to score a General Ability Index of 99th percentile on the WISC-4, or at the 99th percentile overall on another measure such as the Stanford-Binet or the Woodcock-Johnson cognitive battery.

    The scores alone are not sufficient however; other supporting data is required from both the school and the family.

    Gifted programs often do not cost more (or much more) than general education classes, since they have similar class sizes and do not require paraprofessionals in the classroom. However they are always politically sensitive on a number of counts.

    I taught in my district’s gifted program a while back when they used not merely a standardized IQ measure but the “Renzulli triad” to identify gifted students. This triad consisted of high academic ability (some flexibility as to scores), task commitment, and creativity (which had to be demonstrated in actual achievements and accomplishments, as in visual/performing arts, writing, dance or whatever).

    I doubt widespread agreement on a definition of “giftedness” is achievable, but the use of multi-dimensional identification procedures has much to recommend it. No matter the process used, a conflict exists within the field (among parents and educators both) as to whether the emphasis should be on “advancement” or “enrichment” for students at the elementary level.

    I don’t see them as mutually exclusive but many do. At present my district is opposed to advancement (meaning, moving students to the work of a higher grade level) for gifted students; “enriched” work is mandated instead.

    WIth respect I disagree with the previous commenter that struggling students do not benefit from enrichment and “rigor.” Naturally the rigor needs to be at their instructional level, but I find many struggling students respond well to higher challenge and opportunities for in-depth learning. “Remedial” or “basic” learning does not need to be boring or confined to skill mastery. That’s an idea whose time has gone.

  3. While there is certainly room for argument about placement for the gifted, and how that is determined, that discussion ignores the fact that schools are routinely failing to meet the needs of the students between the average and the gifted (and, in some cases, the average kids as well) populations. We already have the schools and the staff, but are unwilling to change placements, provide special programs etc. to provide academic challenges to the most able and motivated. My experience with enrichment, where it is provided, is that it amounts to more artsy-crafty projects and not more and deeper academic content. The focus on the “achievement gap” only makes the system more unwilling to offer anything that will allow the top to move faster or deeper.

  4. Regarding (2) above, I remember reading that NYC formerly had special prep programs for THE TEST, for blacks and Hispanics only, until a court decision opened the programs to all kids. Now, the classes are something like 2/3 Asian and most of the rest are white. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

  5. Regarding palisadesk’s dichotomy between enrichment and advancement, I am squarely in the advancement camp. If my kid’s school had an enrichment-based gifted program, though, I would still want my kid in it. To me, the key motivation is addition by subtraction. The education of diligent students is enhanced by the absence of disruptors. So you can call it Honors or Gifted or AP, I want it because it isn’t derailed by the needs and antics of kids who don’t want to be there. If she can keep up, I want my kid in with the brightest, most motivated peers. And if my kid doesn’t meet the criteria for the Gifted program, I still want a lower-level differentiation between average ability students who try and those who screw around. You may accuse me of not caring about the education of low ability students. Perhaps, but I would argue that even their needs are better addressed in an environment tailored to them rather than mixing them in with students of higher ability.